Toilets of the New Testament
So you're wondering, "How did people in the Bible use the toilet?" Well, that depends! If you're asking about Old Testament times and the many Jewish regulations on personal hygiene and public sanitation, there's another page explaining that. But if you're asking about New Testament times and locations, you've come to the right place. Asia Minor and the Levant had a largely Greek culture thanks to the military campaigns of Alexander the Great from 334 through 323 BC. Add to that the Babylonian idea of Šulak, the "Lurker of the Latrine" or the "Demon of the Privy". The Jewish community had picked up a belief in Šulak, an "unclean spirit" blamed for both physical and spiritual affliction, during their exile in Babylon. Meanwhile, the infrastructure including the water supplies and sanitation was that of the Roman Empire.
Ephesus / ΈφεσοςVisiting
These nice marble-topped public toilets are in the large public latrine near the Library of Celcius in Ephesus, in Asia Minor at the time and part of Turkey today.
Yes, that's me sitting on it. And my mom standing nearby — I was taking my parents around Turkey, and my dad took this picture.
This category of toilet generally means public ones of Greek design. These were communal — no private stalls, but instead several closely adjacent seats on long benches. The flat-topped bench was executed in a variety of materials, although marble highly polished through use was perhaps the most elegant.
To most of us today, highly communal toilets with no privacy at all seem like a very simple, low-budget, and frankly unpleasant situation. "Better than nothing", you might say. "At least the poor people have a place to go."
However, see the essay on "Privies, Privacy and Power" for an explanation of how this communal design was actually for the elite of the period. Using the toilet in front of or in the company of others used to be a privilege of royalty and nobility.
This wasn't limited to Greek and Roman culture. It was the case throughout the ancient world continuing through European royalty into the 1800s, and even extended to a U.S. President in the 1960s. See "Privies, Privacy and Power" for more.
The long benches have one horseshoe shaped hole per "station".
Below the bench was a channel for carrying away wastes. The channel varies widely in depth from one site to the next.
Immediately in front of the bench was a shallow channel carrying (relatively) clean flowing water. Compare this to the copper tubes on modern Turkish train toilets.
Europeans didn't have toilet paper until recently. The Romans, at least the higher classes, used a tersorium, also called a xylospongium, a sponge mounted on a stick. The sponge could be dipped into a water channel running in front of the row of communal toilets in the latrine, and rinsed off in that channel after use. If there was no channel of running water, a bucket of salt water or vinegar water would be used, as Seneca described in his Letters of Lucillus [70,20].
If neither a tersorium nor water were available, the Greeks and Romans used πεσσοι or pessoi, small stones. The tradition started with the ancient Greeks that three stones should be enough to finish the job. This convention has been very long lived, with a hādīth attributed to Muhammad specifying three stones as the ideal number for anal cleaning. The pessoi were also used in an ancient board game in Greece. Aristophanes wrote a scene involving pessoi in Peace in the 5th century. Here's the Penguin Classics translation:
Arms dealer [displaying a cuirass]: And what, alack, shall I do with this rounded cuirass, a beautiful fit, worth ten minas?
Trygaeus: Well, that one will not make a loss for you, anyway. Give me that at cost price. It will be very convenient to crap in ...
Arms dealer: Stop this impudent mockery of my goods!
Trygaeus [placing the cuirass on the ground like a chamber pot and squatting on it]: Like this, if you put three stones beside it. Is it not clever?
The Greeks would use όστρακα or ostraka, small pieces of broken ceramic goods, to vote to shun or ban their opponents. This is where we get the word ostracize. Some scholars have suggested that the ostraka could be used as pessoi, literally wiping your feces onto the names of hated individuals. The abrasive characteristics of broken ceramic material suggest that long-term used of these as pessoi could have resulted in localized irritation at the least, progressing to skin or mucosal damage or the irritation of external hemorrhoids. For more on toilet use of pessoi and ostraka and the medical implications see the paper "Toilet hygiene in the classical era", Philippe Charlier, Luc Brun, Clarisse Prêtre, and Isabelle Huynh-Charlier, in BMJ (the British Medical Journal) 2012;p345-346.
This large public toilet at Ephesus had approximately twelve seats on each of three sides of a room, so it was a 36-holer! Well, Ephesus was the major city of Asia Minor. It also has a remarkably deep waste channel, from about two meters deep (in the section shown at right here) to perhaps twice that on the other side of the room. Note how far the water channel is in front of the seat, one would have to lean very far forward to utilize it.SamenleesBijbel
These toilets date from when Luke, Paul, John, et. al. were in Ephesus. Some of these pictures of mine were used in De Samenleesbijbel, Read the Bible Together, a Dutch study Bible for children of 8–12 years.
The settlement in that area was founded in the 10th century BC, but was relocated to its final location in 292 BC. The Goths destroyed the city in 263, but it was rebuilt under the Byzantines and was the second most important Byzantine city in the 5th and 6th centuries. It was sacked by the Arabs in 654-655, 700, and 716, after which it declined to a small village by the time the Seljuk Turks conquored it 1071-1100. The Byzantines recaptured control in 1100, changed its name to Hagios Theologos, and kept control until 1308. But crusaders passing through found only a small village called Ayasalouk. See my travel page for more information and pictures of Ephesus.
These surprisingly scenic urinals are at Maryemana, on a mountain above Ephesus. Also see the Middle Eastern section of this site for other Turkish plumbing. Someone else has photographed this one for another toilet-themed web site.
Corinthos / Κόρινθος
These are much rougher marble public toilets next to the main processional way from the harbor gate, in Corinthos, Greece.
These also date from when Paul was here, attempting to turn people away from the mountaintop debauchery at the Temple of Aphrodite, visible on the mountaintop in the distance. Presumably, the toilets were better enclosed back then. On the other hand, given that it took Paul two letters to work in all his exhortations about debased lifestyles in Corinthos, maybe they weren't.
Corinthos was destroyed by the Romans in 146 BC and re-founded in 44 BC. It was destroyed by earthquakes in 375 AD and again in 551.
Hierapolis / Ίεράπολις
Hierapolis was the site of the martyrdom of the disciple Phillip, and was also discussed in the closing chapter of Paul's Letter to the Colossians. Colossae, Hierapolis, and Laodicea were within 10-15 km of each other.
The interior images show the construction method clearly, as the bench seat is missing. And yes, that's me again, demonstrating where the seat would have been.
These images provide a clear view of the rather shallow drainage channel, against the wall to the right, and the cleaning water channel immediately in front of the seats. It obviously would have been more convenient to wash your hands in the Hierapolis facilities, although the deeper waste channel at Ephesus would have its own advantages.
The Phrygians (and see the page on Hittite/Phrygians toilets) built a temple here in the early 200s BC. It was destroyed from time to time by earthquakes and Persian armies. See my Turkish travel pages for more on Hierapolis.
The Lurker in the Latrine, Epilepsy, and the New Testament
Although the physician Hippocrates (460-370 BC) and other Greeks had done quite a bit for the practice of medicine, it wasn't the science that we know today. Magic and monsters still played prominent roles.
While exiled in Babylonia, the Jewish people had picked up the Babylonian idea of Šulak, the Lurker of the Latrine or Demon of the Privy. The "Lurker" category of demon in Babylonian thought lies in wait in places where potential victims are likely to be alone. A victim urinating or defecating is exposed and therefore vulnerable. "Šulak will strike him!", they say. The Babylonians seem to have gotten the idea for this demon from the Hittites, see about their toilets here. People of this era would describe a disease as the "hand" of a specific god, demon, or ghost, meaning that the ailment is the result of being struck.
The Babylonian mišittim means "stroke", a term which can mean a physical blow and which is also used to refer to a cerebrovascular accident or rapid loss of brain function due to a disturbance in the blood and thus oxygen supply to the brain. Stroke in the cerebrovascular sense was first reported in the 2nd millennium BCE. The cause wasn't known, so being struck down by a lurking demon was a good as any other explanation.
Hippocrates was the first writer to describe the sudden paralysis associated with ischemic stroke. He used the term άποπληξία or apoplēxia, meaning that the victim was "struck down with violence". English borrows his diagnostic term as apoplexy. It wasn't until 1658 when Johann Jacob Wepfer suggested in his book Apoplexia that people who died from apoplexy had bleeding in their brains.
Cerebral stroke and epilepsy were closely related in ancient medicine and easily confused in the surviving writings.
This Demon of the Privy is the type of unclean spirit that people of the early Christian era regarded as the cause of both physical and spiritual affliction. Joel Marcus' Mark 8-16: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary in the Yale Anchor Bible series discusses this. First, the text itself of Mark 9:14-29, where Jesus heals a boy described as epileptic:
And as they came to the disciples, they saw a great crowd
around them and scribes arguing with them.
And all the crowd, when they saw him, were immediately
awestruck, and they ran forward and hailed him.
And he asked them, "What were you arguing about with them?"
And one from the crowd answered him, "Teacher, I brought my
son to you because he has a mute spirit.
And wherever he is when it grabs him, it tears him, and
he foams at the mouth and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid.
And I asked your disciples to cast it out, but they didn't
have the strength."
And he answered and said to them, "O faithless generation,
how long will I be with you?
How long will I put up with you?
Bring him to me."
And they brought him to him.
And seeing him, the spirit immediately convulsed the boy,
and he fell on the ground and was rolling around foaming
at the mouth.
And Jesus asked his father, "How long has he been like this?"
And he said, "From childhood.
And many times it has thrown him into the fire and into
waters in order to destroy him.
But if you can anything, have pity on us and help us!"
But Jesus said to him, "'If you can'?
All things are possible to the one who believes!"
father of the child immediately cried out and said,
"I believe; help my unbelief!"
And Jesus, seeing that a crowd was gathering together rapidly,
rebuked the unclean spirit and said to it, "Mute and deaf
spirit, I command you, come out of him and don't ever
enter him again!"
And shouting and convulsing him greatly, it came out;
and he became like a corpse, so that many people were saying
that he had died.
But Jesus seized his hand and raised him, and he arose.
And when Jesus had gone into a house, his disciples asked
him privately, "Why weren't we able to cast it out?"
And he said to them, "This sort of spirit can't be gotten out
in any way except by prayer."
The notes for verses 17 and 18 include:
a mute spirit. Gk pneuma alalon, that is, a spirit that prevents him from speaking. The boy appears to be an epileptic, as shown by Matthew's diagnosis (17:15) and by the correspondence between the boy's symptoms and other ancient descriptions of epilepsy (see Kollman, Jesus, 211-13; Wohlers, Heilige Krankheit, 21-23); on the epileptic's inability to speak during a seizure, for example, see Pseudo-Hippocrates, On the Sacred Disease 7:1; 10:6. According to Mark 9.25, the spirit is also deaf, a reflection of the epileptic's insensibility when undergoing a seizure.
In ancient paganism, epilepsy was often referred to as "the sacred disease," though there was no unanimity about the reason for this nomenclature; some thought it was because the malady was sent by a god, others because it attacked those who had sinned against a divinity, and still others because it could be healed only be divine intervention (see Aretaeus of Cappadocia, Chronic Diseases 1.4). Jews and Christians, however, avoided this terminology, not wanting to assicate the deity too closely with such a terrible affliction; instead epilepsy was often attributed to demons (for an odd example, see b. Git. 70a, in which the epilepsy of a child is blamed on "the demon of the privy" that adhered to the child's father when he had sex too soon after relieving himself). Indeed, so close was the disease's linkage with possession in the popular mind that in later Byzantine times Christians simply referred to it as "the demon" (see Temkin, Falling Sickness, 86). Wohlers (Heilige Krankheit, 128-30) thinks that the demonological explanation of epilepsy first arose in Christian circles, but this thesis requires him to ascried the first-century C.E. passage in Aretaeus to Christian influence without proof (cf. also T. Sol. 18:21).
The demonological interpretation of epilepsy was doubtless influenced by sufferers' loss of control over themselves, the sense they conveyed of being victims of an attack from the outside—an impression still preserved in the modern English term "seizure" (see the NOTE on "wherever he is when it grabs him" in 9:18). Physicians, however, tended to reject such demonological explanations and to attribute epilepsy to a variety of physiological causes such as a superfluity of phlegm in the brain, disturbances in sexual function, climatic factors, and diet. The etiology of epilepsy, therefore, became a crucial battleground between the scientific and magical views of illness (see Temkin, Falling Sickness, 4). Nor has this conflict ended in modern times; for a sad case study of mutual misunderstanding in California in the 1980s, see Anne Fadiman's book The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures.
18. wherever he is when it grabs him. Gk hopou ean auton katalabḝ, lit. "wherever it grabs him"; the meaning is that the spirit attacks and convulses the boy wherever he happens to be, as subsequently happens in 9:20. The verb used here, katalambanein, has the same root as the verb from which "epilepsy" comes, epilambanein, which literally means "to seize." "In Greek, just as in modern speech, one would say of any disease that it has "seized" a man, and this terminology perhaps goes back to a very old magic conception according to which all diseases were believed "attacks" and seizures by gods and demons, as documented in Babylonian medicine. Since epilepsy was the demoniac disease par excellence, the term gradually acquired a more particular meaning and came to signify epileptic seizure" (Temkin, Falling Sickness, 21).
See the Toilets of the Old Testament page for more on the origins of the Babylonian Šulak and the Talmudic analysis and Judaic latrine hygiene rules.